It’s been over a month in Mexico for Jeremy Stephens, leading one to assume that the veteran featherweight is not just getting acclimated to the high altitude he will fight Yair Rodriguez in this Saturday, but also embrace his heritage and take in life south of the border.
“Not really,” Stephens, who is half-Mexican on his mother’s side, laughs. “A fight's a fight. This is biggest fight of my life, obviously, and this is a big moment for me to go and seize, so once I win, it will mean that much more to me and I'm bringing money home to my family. That's really the most important thing I need to remember every time that I go and fight. It doesn't matter where, it doesn't matter what time, what hour; anytime I fight, it's always the biggest opportunity, the biggest moment.”
Yet despite dismissing that romantic notion, the Iowa-born Californian does admit that being in Mexico for the last five weeks has been something he won’t forget.
“To fight in Mexico is an honor, it's a new journey, a new experience, and I wanted to fight here,” he said. “It took Yair a week and a half to sign the contract and I wanted to fight here. I wanted a new challenge, I wanted the new journey, so I embraced it. It's a different journey and I took myself out of my comfort zone and got really uncomfortable and that's where the biggest learning is. It's been amazing out here, I'm surrounded by great people, I'm at high altitude and I'm just embracing it. I'm not comfortable; this isn't my country, this isn't my home, this isn't my regular place to train. There's a lot of differences, a lot of struggles, a lot of different things that I've had to overcome and that's good for the mental game because when I come to the fight, I'm gonna be well prepared.”
It’s clear that the 33-year-old is on a business trip, one of over 40 he’s made since turning pro in 2005. Considering the sheer amount of fights and the level of competition he’s faced in them, it’s remarkable that Stephens remains in the featherweight top ten, but that’s a testament not just to his talent, power and attitude, but to an underrated aspect of his game.
“I know how to bang, I know how to throw myself into the situation, but what people don't really understand is my intelligence,” he said. “I'm a knockout artist. I see things that most fighters don't really see. I put people out in devastating ways and not just with the right hand. I'm talking about multiple limbs on my body, but what they always seem to forget is just how good my mental game is and how smart my approach is.”
He’s right, because sheer power and talent will only get you so far. Stephens found that out the hard way over the years, but he made the proper adjustments and, most importantly, he realized that a fighter who isn’t willing to keep learning is falling behind. So after his decision loss to Zabit Magomedsharipov in March, he reached out to one of his peers for some different looks.
“I put myself up with Tony Ferguson for a while and trained with him and he trains like a Mayweather - he trains hours and hours,” said Stephens of the number one lightweight contender. “I took a buddy up there and he said, 'Damn, I never knew there was somebody else like you. I think you finally found your brother.' (Laughs) I'm training late at night, I'm going on runs when everybody else is sleeping, and I'm doing a lot of different things than other people do and I'm enjoying myself. I know how to fight. You take me to a gas station right now, I guarantee you I know how to knock everybody out there. And it's another opportunity for me to go and put somebody else on the canvas and go home and take care of my family like I always do.”
Listening to Stephens talk about fighting, and it’s always crystal clear that when you take away all the bright lights, main events and trips out of the country, he is that rare soul that would probably fight for free if he didn’t do it for a living. That’s in his blood.
“I think I was born with it,” Stephens said. “You ever seen a baby picture of me? I've got two fists up. (Laughs) I was born for this. Everything I've ever been through, it's really created me to be the monster that I am today. I'm a unique individual and I love fighting. Maybe there's gonna be a day that I don't want to do it no more and that will be the day I decide to hang it up. But as of right now, I enjoy making money, I enjoy traveling the world and I enjoy the UFC.”
Most importantly, he enjoys the fight, and he’s ready to bring one to Rodriguez.
“I'm gonna be in your face, breaking you the whole time until you want to quit,” Stephens said. “And that's how it's gonna go September 21st.”